Does Eating with Others Pressure You to Make Healthier Choices?

By Jiri Kaloc

Do you tend to choose healthier food when you eat with other people? And does it matter if those people are of the same school, company or ethnicity as you? A new study set out to find out when and why we tend to choose healthier food.

The researchers set up four experiments that included over 1,000 participants in total to show how much other people influence our food choices. The first experiment compared how we choose food when accompanied by people from the same and different ethnicity. The second experiment evaluated the same for university affiliation and the third for company affiliation.

Fruit or a Kit Kat bar?

In the first two experiments, the participants were asked to fill out a survey which served only as a distraction. Then came the important part, a research assistant would offer the participant a choice of two snacks as a reward for completing the survey. This assistant would either be of the same or different ethnicity and university affiliation.

Chocolate bars
Which would you choose?

In the first experiment, the participants were offered the choice between a healthy fruit snack and an indulgent Kit Kat bar. When in the presence of a research assistant of the same ethnicity, only 26,32 % of participants selected the healthier fruit snack. However, this number increased to 41,46 % when the research assistant was of different ethnicity. Similarly in the second experiment, when in the presence of a student from one’s own university, only 11,69 % of participants selected the healthier snack. And that number more than doubled to 30,77 % when in the presence of a student from a different university.

We want to avoid harsh judgement

The first two experiments showed clearly that people tend to choose healthier options in the presence of people from other groups. The third and fourth experiments were designed to find out why. The third experiment established that people feel like they will be judged more harshly by people from groups other than their own. The fourth experiment showed that people tend to choose healthier foods when they anticipate harsh judgment. They chose healthier snacks as a way to make a positive impression to counter the possible negative judgement.

Use it to your advantage

The authors of this research suggest that one way to promote a healthy diet could be to advertise the social benefits of healthy choices. This would have practical implications for marketers of healthy foods and policymakers hoping to promote healthy eating habits.

“We know that food plays an important role in social life and consumers often make inferences about others’ traits and characteristics based on their food choices. Our research shows that we can use this important role of food for consumer welfare if we highlight that healthy food is not only good for consumers but also helps them to impress others. These findings could be very significant to those hoping to improve healthy eating practices in the UK because they open a new avenue to promote the benefits of healthy eating: It’s good for you and your health, and it’s also good for making a positive impression,” said Dr Janina Steinmetz, co-author of the study.

And how about you? Do you stick with indulgence or switch to a healthy option when surrounded by people you consider different from you?